Rediscovering the Sound of Music

In a sonic universe fragmented into downloaded MP3 song files and store-bought compact discs, the advent of new technology and new music formats gives prospective buyers of sound equipment another set of lifestyle choices. Increasingly, consumers are defining themselves not only by what they listen to, but what they use to play their favorite tunes.

While most music these days is heard while driving in a car or through headphones connected to iPods and portable CD players, dedicated audiophiles and fans of high-tech equipment are using the emergence of digitally stored music players as an opportunity to reconfigure other parts of their home-entertainment systems, particularly the audio side, says Brent Butterworth, editor of the luxury goods magazine The Robb Report Home Entertainment.

"When you have a change in technology, more people want to have something to upgrade to," he says. "We're going to be looking at a lot of turnover for stereo systems on both the high end and the low end."

He says the arrival of portable or home digital music servers is prompting many buyers to shift from $100 boom boxes to $500 stereo systems or a carefully matched group of components that deliver excellent sound for about $1,200 -- though it's always possible to spend more.

"It's a little like buying a car," Butterworth says. "Some people want that little bit more for themselves. It's not just about good sound. Some people want to have something they can show off."

Audio purists say a really good stereo system relies on the same basic components: an integrated amplifier (or preamplifier and amplifier) to power the system, a compact disc player, or a digital music server if you play MP3 files, and, most importantly, a pair of great speakers.

The Best Buy's Not Always Before Your Eyes

You don't need to be a concert pianist to know the difference between good sound and great sound, but a few tips will keep you from hitting a sour note when you buy a new stereo. Set a budget, look around for a store with good service and always bring along your favorite music when you shop.

It's not necessary to drop a bundle on a high-end music system, but a little research will help you get the most of what you pay for, whether you want skull-rattling rock or Brahms bursting in air.

Big-box electronics stores such as Best Buy or Tweeter can sell you a solid, reliable stereo right out of a box for $400 to $500; prepackaged systems have improved markedly in quality and dropped significantly in price over the last two decades. Butterworth says a few hundred dollars now will buy you what cost $2,000 about 15 years ago, but it's still the difference between a Ferrari and a Volvo.

"There is a chasm between what we call mid-fi and hi-fi," says Michael Nadler, senior salesman at Sound by Singer in New York, where prices range from $1,300 to $150,000 for systems packaged by the store's employees. "You get a degree of refinement, sonically, that is a big difference."

Once you know what you can spend and have an idea of what you want, figuring out where to spend it is critical. Look at the store's choice of brands and level of sales-team expertise.

Also ask about postpurchase installation and service. Experts say that's where many great stereo systems are reduced to merely adequate performers, despite their high price tags. Visit more than one store, just to compare your own reaction to the service you get.

"Do as much homework about the place you go to as the stuff in the place," Nadler says. "If you just start comparing brands, it's going to get confusing very quickly."

Nadler says coming in with a budget makes the difference between being taken seriously and getting lumped in with the casual browsers who gawk at futuristic-looking speaker towers and $20,000 turntables that look more like modern sculpture than stereo equipment.

He says the store gets more than a few Wall Street types who immediately ask for custom installations of media systems that can run to $750,000. "I get way more satisfaction when somebody comes in and says, 'I've got a budget of $3,000 and I just want to get the best music I can for that,'" he says.

Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association, says sound quality is often neglected as people spend more money on home entertainment.

Because of the resolution of DVDs, consumers now spend more money on the video side of their systems, and often short-change themselves on sound quality, he says. Outside of high-end audio stores, most salespeople focus on getting buyers to spend more on televisions.

"That isn't necessarily good news for us," he says.

Be Your Own DJ

After you've heard the technical specifications and prices, test the equipment with a handful of your favorite recordings. Listen to what you like -- not what you think you should listen to because you're spending a lot of money.

"We always tell customers to bring in their own music and listen," cautions Ray Delgado, a sales associate at the Bang & Olufsen outlet near Manhattan's Union Square. "We don't even have test CDs here. If you don't listen to that stuff at home, it's going to sound different. A lot of stores have demo CDs that are made to make the speakers perform well."

It's a good piece of cautionary advice coming from a representative of a line of equipment acclaimed as much for its Scandinavian design aesthetic as the technical quality of its $1,250 to $21,000 systems.

Try to include a female vocalist to test midrange and high sounds. Butterworth recommends Norah Jones or Holly Cole. If you enjoy classical, bring some chamber music to hear how things sound without any bass. Use Wagner or Beethoven for lower tones. Paul Simon's 1986 South African-tinged recording Graceland is still a favorite test CD for capturing a wide range of sound.

And really listen -- at high and low volumes and in different parts of the room. Play with the remote controls to make sure the bells and whistles are what you want.

Nadler says such attentive, focused listening is different than the way most people hear music, but it's worth the effort when making a purchase.

Spending a little extra for professional installation is also critical, says Bob Archer, senior editor of CE Pro and TecHome Builder magazines and AV Guru for the Boston trade group EH Publishing.

"When you buy a costly system and the customer installs it, it isn't always going to perform at the highest level, he says. "Arguably, the biggest component in any stereo system is the room itself," he says. For many of us, it's been a long time since we even listened to music standing still.

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